Before the Paling of the Stars

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SATB a cappella
Difficulty Level: Intermediate
Text: Christina Rossetti

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Composer's Note

Composer's Note

I've long admired Christina Rossetti's poetry. Much of it is rhapsodic and ethereal, but she also demonstrates a directness and economy with words that bely her more florid Victorian contemporaries. Some of her best poetry, in my estimation, is when she arrives at a felicitous merging of her rhapsodic and economical voices, which seems to project a sense of reverence and deep, personal seeking. Perhaps this is a product of lifetime of illness -- both for her and close family members -- as well as frequent religious crises that had a major impact on her life. As of 2020, I have now composed three of her poems, the others being "Pure River," the 4th movement of From Mountain to Forest to River, and a setting of None Other Lamb, an early, unruly piece of mine not likely to be revived!

Many know her through her Christmas poetry, having penned three oft-performed Christmas texts set by choral composers, "In the Bleak Midwinter," "Love Came Down at Christmas," and "Before the Paling of the Stars."

The first of these is a particular favorite of mine, but since there are so many wonderful settings of this text already (Darke, Stopford, Holst, among others), I found that I'd much rather set my sights elsewhere. The second is not a poem that resonates with me as much as the others, but the third has always caught my attention. There are some memorable phrases that have always stuck with me, and this poem, like many of her poems, has a very musical flow to it.

But it is the tone of reverence, awe, and quiet praise in the text that most called me to it. Around the time I wrote this I had become enamored of the choral music of Benjamin Britten, and he is certainly an influence here. Harmonically, this piece is carefully laid out, with lots of seventh chords and added-note harmonies that give it a light, shimmering effect.

When I first sketched out the piece it had a big ending, repeating "to hail the King of Glory" many times, culminating in something of a flourish. Almost embarrassed, I discarded the ending and spent some more time with the poem and found a simpler, more reverent way to end the piece. After all, the final scene suggests we, the observers, kneel in praise together with Mary and Joseph, along with the saints, angels, ox and ass--hardly a scene of bombast and excess. Instead of building to a crescendo, I do the opposite. Repeating the last line three times, we settle--almost hymn-like--into a simple expression, as though becoming increasingly awed by the holiness of the scene.

Text (Christina Rossetti)

Before the paling of the stars,
Before the winter morn,
Before the earliest cock crow,
Jesus Christ was born.
Born in a stable,
Cradled in a manger,
In the world his hands had made,
Born a stranger.

Priest and king lay fast asleep
In Jerusalem;
Young and old lay fast asleep
In crowded Bethlehem;
Saint and angel, ox and ass,
Kept a watch together
Before the Christmas daybreak
In the winter weather.

Jesus on his mother's breast
In the stable cold,
Spotless lamb of God was he,
Shepherd of the fold.
Let us kneel with Mary maid,
With Joseph bent and hoary,
With saint and angel, ox and ass,
To hail the King of Glory.

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